Who needs to catch up?

My children received their school reports today. Listed in the usual order of academic subjects, they present neatly calibrated effort and attainment grades for this past half term. I applaud my children’s teachers for their herculean efforts in ensuring continuity of learning – they really have shown such determination to maintain ‘business as usual’ against all the odds. But I have to say that the grades in front of me don’t give an accurate account of my children’s growth this past year. That is not the fault of their teachers; academic reports like these are from a different era.

Over the last twelve months, our nation’s school pupils have sat alongside their parents and carers, as equal observers, watching the news and trying to process and assimilate horrifying headlines that would not have been believable twelve months ago. Our children have steered their way through uncharted waters, learning as they go, adapting, pivoting and accommodating, and forever curbing their expectations whilst reigning in their hopes.

They have developed resilience, resourcefulness, digital literacy skills, creativity, self-discipline, self-sufficiency, self-restraint, self-regulation and, above all, they have learned to be patient. Oh, so patient.

They have found their own routines and rituals to stay positive. They have developed the self-motivation required to get out of bed and shuffle to their ‘classroom’ two steps away. They have battled frustration, disappointment, loneliness, anxiety, disorientation, boredom and monotony – and they have won.

They are not the ‘lost generation’, sentenced to a life of catch up; they are superheroes, and they will be the cultural architects of a new world. They have developed new skills, attitudes and behaviours – and not to mention some reprioritised values – that will bring them success in the new paradigms in which we will live, learn, work and socialise, post-pandemic.

The question is: is our education system ready for their return? Is it ready to review its own values and priorities now? The teachers are ready, of course they are! They have worked tirelessly to maintain a continuity of learning and parity of provision this past year. Teachers across the land have gone above and beyond to stay in contact with their students, to teach, support and care for them – to keep the learning going, sometimes in school, oftentimes remotely at home – and in many cases juggling both synchronously. And they will be so ready to see them all again in person, when they will praise them and credit them for how much they have grown, physically, mentally and emotionally. They will know only too well of the hardships their pupils have endured and the resilience they have shown to make it to the other side, and they will value their emotional wellbeing and their self-worth more than ever.

Will these young, brave superheroes view school differently when they return to its routines and customs? Will they come to see how the traditional criteria against which they were being measured is inadequate now? I think they will. The genie is out of the bottle.

I think they will recognise what many of us have known for a long time: that the dominant practices and methods of measurement are anachronistic, ‘academic’. In prioritising the visible, measurable attainment and progress of our students – largely in academic disciplines – have we failed to recognise and comment meaningfully on the invisible and immeasurable growth they have made, in school, in home, in life?

The culture of a school, with its customs, norms and values, will seem smaller now, whilst every member of its community will have grown – in ways that will not be visible if we persist in using the traditional instruments of calibrating, sorting and ranking. Nothing stunts growth more than sorting and ranking by narrow criteria, and how schools adapt to stay relevant now will define not only our children’s futures, but the future of school itself. We have such an opportunity to create a new culture, with new assumptions, new values and new customs and norms that shape how we do things in school.

For one hundred and fifty years, since Forster’s Elementary Education Act, school has delivered an assembly line of learning, built on a factory approach of mass production, standardisation and quality control. The 1870 Act codified and assumed Crown responsibility for education. It mandated inspectors to hold schools accountable for their teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic. And it was a benevolent act, certainly: it brought children out of workhouses and lowly paid jobs they were much too young to be doing. It gave them an education, an opportunity to develop white collar skills, a chance to better themselves, to climb out of poverty in many cases; just as it continues to improve the life chances of students today, bringing them an academic education that can open doors and bring prosperity (notwithstanding I have always championed vocational alternatives too).

But it is now undeniably true that the dominant three Rs are neither delivering the premium skills required by today’s employers, nor are they doing justice to the myriad ways in which children are smart, and the innate potential they possess. Improving literacy and numeracy may have been the ultimate aim in 1870, creating a more educated workforce for a more prosperous economy, but new skills are required now – and new attitudes too. Qualities and capacities like problem-solving, creativity, resourcefulness, resilience – these are highly-prized and they are precisely what our children have been developing during this past year, because they have had to.

I am optimistic about the future. What a child shows she knows in an exam was once held to be an accurate measure of her actual learning ability, but now this has to change – it would be risible to suggest otherwise, given how much our children have grown and matured this year, without exams. School leavers once defined themselves by their academic grades alone, but this will change too. They will know, I hope, that they are so much more than their grades, they are bigger, stronger. This cycle, this culture, will now be revealed for the self-limiting, self-fulfilling myth that it always was. You cannot capture a child’s growth – and education should be about growth – in an academic school report focused predominantly on their measurable efforts and attainment (compliance and knowledge retention). I am convinced that we will move from this myopic view of attainment and progress, to broaden the way in which we view the ‘whole child’ in the future. And this is such an exciting prospect, to build a new culture of growth, of whole development, recognizing the importance of the very qualities that have brought our children through this unsettling chapter in all of our lives.

The invisible, immeasurable attitudes and behaviours children will have developed by themselves during this uniquely challenging year must be seen and appreciated in full technicolor now, for they are the very qualities they will need in the new world – a world in which school itself now needs to catch up.

And catch up it must, because the children returning to school deserve something new.



Celebrating and supporting the ‘Whole Teacher’

It is not often that I use the word ‘inspirational’ when referring to a particular speaker at a conference or webinar I have attended. I can think of a handful of speakers who have truly inspired in the past. Many have informed, instructed, perhaps even rejuvenated, but I’m hard to inspire.

It is even rarer for me to attend a conference where not one but all of the speakers have inspired me.

And it is a true one-off when I have been fortunate enough to host such a webinar, where every speaker I interviewed was so engaging that I forgot I was supposed to be asking them questions.

Such was my experience at a recent virtual conference entitled ‘The Whole Teacher’, which I hosted on behalf of Discovery Education and the NAHT.

The conference began with an inspiring speech from NAHT President, Ruth Davies. Ruth described so eloquently and compassionately the challenges endured – and conquered – by her fellow school leaders and teachers over the last few months of lockdown. Her vision for the year ahead was filled with optimism and hope.

I was then able to interview NAHT General Secretary, Paul Whiteman. Paul spoke with such honesty and wisdom, recognising the sterling efforts of NAHT members across the country, as they work so hard to provide the very best provision possible in these unprecedented times, where certainty and control – surely essential tools for any school leader to be able perform their role – have been in short supply. Paul’s understanding, good humour and compassion for everyone in the profession showed that NAHT members have a truly inspiring and authentic voice speaking up for them in Whitehall.

My next guest was the brilliant Professor Tim O’Brien, an experienced teacher, lecturer, research professor and psychologist who has spent many years working in the field of wellbeing. Tim’s inspiring words will have been both reassuring and empowering for the 450 educators who attended, I am sure. I could talk to Tim for hours, and have been lucky enough to do so on several occasions. His ability to shed light on our wellbeing and mental health in ways that develop our understanding and self-efficacy is refreshing and very empowering.

Next up was Marijke Miles, experienced school leader and NAHT National Executive member. Marijke has led special schools for many years and she spoke so eloquently about her experiences in leading and motivating teams and helping to meet the complex needs of students. Her enthusiasm for the job and her eloquence in capturing why teachers teach and why leaders lead was inspirational.

I was then able to interview Ruth Davies again, where she spoke so wisely about listening to – and trusting in – our ‘inner voice’. The high-blame, low-risk culture Ruth spoke of, which has been forced upon many school leaders in a climate of hyper-accountability, will have been recognised by many attendees, I’m sure. Ruth called for all of us to place our trust in teachers again, arguing that now, more than ever, we can turn to teachers and school leaders to guide us out of the extraordinary situation we have endured and onto brighter and better times ahead.

The day ended with a walk through the Discovery Education Pathway Programme, a new holistic programme which supports the professional and personal development of educators, launching in schools in September.

The event was entitled ‘The Whole Teacher’ and with the help of our extraordinary speakers, I think we did the title justice.

You can watch a recording of the whole event on the NAHT’s Facebook page, including the technical hitch at the beginning, when the internet performed its usual trickery and sent our hearts racing for a moment, but in true teacher fashion, we kept going and recovered well!

My sincere thanks to the guests who all gave up their time freely and to the fabulous team at EY3 Media who, together with my colleagues at Discovery Education, helped make the day possible.

Here’s to many more discussions we will be holding about how we can best support #thewholeteacher. It’s about time.

You can find out more about the NAHT & Discovery Education Pathway Programme here



Little Questions for BIG Thinkers

There is no greater privilege for a teacher, or a parent perhaps, than being present when a young child engages in some deep thinking and a new dimension is unwrapped for them – when they realise that there is another way of viewing things, another angle, a fresh approach. Seeing the expression in their eyes when they discover that the world they’ve been inhabiting for a few years has other dimensions that were in shadow but are now illuminated for them – such moments are golden for us grown ups to witness. During my twenty years of teaching in primary and prep schools I always enjoyed running philosophy and thinking clubs for this reason.

Seeing things differently or approaching things from other angles gives children something they really need in learning – and certainly something they need at the moment during this lockdown period: it gives them space. Space is so important in learning: space to think, space and scope to come up with one’s own ideas and theories without fear of ‘getting it wrong’.

Philosophy provides this space precisely because there is rarely one correct answer to a philosophical question: there is always scope for different opinions. Philosophy builds brains, literally; it helps children to make new connections in their heads, and making new connections is what good thinking is all about.

In philosophy, a little question can be deceptively large. Take the following, for example: ‘Does a bird know that it’s a bird?’  Such a question leads to many more playful questions, few of which have a ‘correct’ answer, as far as I know, and all of which can occupy children’s brains as they metaphorically explore the cavernous space which the original question led them into.

Does a bird need to know it’s a bird? Does it matter? And if it doesn’t know that it’s a bird, well, what does it think it is? If it doesn’t know what it is, then how does it know how to behave like a bird?

If birds’ behaviour is essentially instinctive, handed down from generations of birds before them, then can the same be said for us humans who do know what we are? How much of our behaviour is driven by our being cognisant of ‘this is what humans do’ and how much of it is subconscious, driven by our instincts?

And then, of course, there is the question: Why should humans be the only species who are truly cognisant of what they are? Why us? What is so special about us? Why do we human beings possess an ability to understand what it means to be human, when other species do not have the same meta-awareness?

Or do they? How do we know?

In my new series entitled ‘Little Questions for BIG Thinkers’, I’ve been posing questions like this on Discovery Education’s free-to-subscribe YouTube channel. These are little questions to which there are some very big answers and lots and lots to talk about. They invite children to visit a place that has not yet been conquered – where there is scope and space to come up with their own theories and talk about their opinions without the worry that someone will tell them they’re ‘wrong’!

I hope you enjoy some BIG thinking with your children, whether it’s your own children at home or your students online. There are so many changes afoot in the way we interact and the way we learn, but two things will always remain: it’s good to think and it’s good to talk.

Little Questions for BIG Thinkers


Relationship Education

The new RSE Curriculum and what this means for primary schools

As Senior Director of Learning at Discovery Education, I am proud of our brand new programme, Health and Relationships, which empowers teachers in primary schools to deliver the new RSE Curriculum through high-quality films, informative learning materials, and extensive guidance for teachers, parents and carers.

As readers will know, the Department for Education has introduced a new curriculum for Relationship Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education, commonly shortened to RSE. It will be compulsory for all schools to teach this curriculum in September 2020.

If you read some of the newspaper headlines or follow certain feeds on social media, you would be forgiven for thinking that this means children as young as five are now going to be taught sex education. This is simply not true.

As the guidance tells us, ‘The Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019, made under sections 34 and 35 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, make Relationships Education compulsory for all pupils receiving primary education and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) compulsory for all pupils receiving secondary education.’

So, despite what you may read in the press or on social media, primary schools will not be required to teach sex education to young children. The sex education element of the new RSE curriculum is for secondary schools and parents have a right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of this curriculum until three terms before they reach 16.

As part of the established KS2 Science curriculum of course, most primary schools already teach the life cycle of reproduction in animals, including humans. How our bodies grow and change from birth to old age, and the different challenges this brings for all of us, is an important part of a KS2 primary curriculum and should be taught without stigma or embarrassment. Giving children the accurate terms that are used to name external parts of our bodies, for example, is an important part of their education and need not be controversial.

The topics to be taught in primary schools under the new Relationships and Health Education curriculum include: Families and people who care for me; Caring friendships; Respectful relationships; Online relationships; and Being safe. There is an emphasis on treating each other with kindness, consideration and respect. The concept of personal privacy is also taught, alongside honesty, truthfulness and the seeking and giving of permission.

As a parent of four children myself, I find it reassuring that we are teaching character traits and positive personal attributes that enable young people to build healthy relationships with others and to lead happy and fulfilling lives, in safety.

I am more concerned about what is being taught to young children outside school, in the world around them. The uncomfortable truth is that children of primary school age today are surrounded by sexually explicit material in the songs they listen to, the programmes they may watch and the conversations they may participate in on social media. Popular television programmes still considered to be ‘family viewing on a Saturday night’ are now rife with sexual references and innuendo. Seeing children write out the lyrics of their favourite pop songs fills me with concern, such is the explicit nature of the content and messages contained within them. I worry about the premature adultification of children and the loss of innocence in childhood. One cannot ‘un-hear’ what one has heard, or ‘un-see’ what one has seen. I don’t believe that school is making this worse, rather I think it can play an important role in providing reassurance and comfort to children, in full partnership with their parents and carers – the most important educators in their lives.

One can only imagine what some young children may be thinking when they return to school on a Monday morning, having spent the weekend watching programmes, listening to songs or engaging in online conversations that expose them to adult content, and it is only right that they have the chance to ask questions freely. How schools handle those questions is crucial and children should be able to express what is on their mind in the safety of a school environment. If teachers were unable to receive any questions relating to sexual behaviour I am certain that the children would look elsewhere for answers, and who knows how reliable those answers would be.

But there is a difference between being open to all questions from children and formally teaching them content that is inappropriate for their age and stage in life. In primary school there is no requirement to teach pupils sex education, but teachers have a duty to respond when questions are asked.

As the DfE’s guidance says, ‘Children of the same age may be developmentally at different stages, leading to differing types of questions or behaviours. Teaching methods should take account of these differences.’ As a teacher for twenty years, I often encountered questions that were not appropriate in a whole-class setting, but they still needed to be dealt with in a one-to-one or small group setting.

What I find encouraging is that ‘the focus in primary schools should be on teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, with particular reference to friendships, family relationships, and relationships with other children and with adults.’

A good school is built on love and respect, just as a family is. This has always been a mantra for me and I have said it in every leadership role I have held. We begin with love and mutual respect and we work outwards from there. I am pleased then to see a focus in the new curriculum on how families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. ‘Families can include for example, single parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers, amongst other structures.’ Removing all stigmatisation of children who come from different home circumstances is vitally important, and this is a key theme within the new curriculum.

Few schools would not include tolerance and respect of others’ faiths and beliefs in their core values. Schools already promote equality, of course. Teachers have a duty to explain how some cultures and faiths have different beliefs that deserve respect, and this is encouraged within the new curriculum too: ‘In all schools, when teaching these subjects, the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled.’ Guidance is provided for teachers so that they are able to deliver the curriculum sensitively and respectfully. For example, schools may wish to reflect on faith teachings about certain topics, and the ‘protected characteristics’ of a person, defined under the Equality Act 2010, must be respected.

As a former teacher and headteacher, I think the guidance accompanying our new programme, Health & Relationships, is as important as the curriculum content it delivers. Equipping busy teachers with the advice and guidance they need to communicate effectively and sensitively with parents and carers is of paramount importance to us. I welcome our new programme and I am excited for the good work it will do in helping children to recognise the importance of maintaining positive relationships, showing tolerance and respect for others, and growing up healthily and safely. I wish the programme had been available when my own children were in primary school.

For more information on Discovery Education Health & Relationships, do get in touch. I will be delighted to tell you more about it.


When character is forged

The unique bundle of character traits and proclivities known to me as ‘Andrew Hammond’ was assembled and packaged up in my early childhood. It was in the jostling precinct of primary school where my likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, talents and failings were hammered into shape and case-hardened. My perception of the world and my place within it had set in my subconscious mind by the time I had reached eight years old, I am certain.

Here I am, aged forty-eight, and though the receptacle may shows signs of aging, the character it carries hasn’t changed one bit. The same strengths and positive traits continue to bring me fulfilment, just as familiar frailties and fragilities bring me the same old anxieties. These drivers and characteristics coalesce to create what I recognise as ‘me’.

Like most grown-ups, I profess to being in control of my decision-making, of the choices I make and the routes I take. In reality, I am driven by a fusion of sub-conscious lessons I learned forty years ago, back when my malleable, impressionable inner-thoughts coalesced to form the blueprint of me. Since then, I may have picked up some knowledge and developed some new skills and competencies, but there are many things I have had to ‘unlearn’ about myself in order to progress.

Primary schools are the engine rooms of learning and growing, where the most value can be added, but also where the most damage can be inflicted. A good school is built on love and mutual respect. A caring culture allows strong foundations to seed, but a loveless, stressful environment for young children is toxic: brain energy that would otherwise be used to build synapses and make connections is diverted to coping with trauma instead, and so healthy development in memory, thinking and feeling is stymied through synaptic pruning. Difficulties we experience in later life can often be traced back to sub-conscious lessons we learned in childhood in response to traumatic experiences endured.

I was lucky. I have no recollection of significantly stressful surroundings, either at home or at school. But I have taught many children who have not been so fortunate and it continues to upset me when I see students forming negative impressions of themselves which may lead to poor mental health in their adult lives.

It is a school’s culture, not its curriculum, that has the most powerful effect on the way children view themselves and the world around them. It is culture – the way we do things around here – that shapes and case-hardens character.

When middle-aged educators like me furrow our brows and think hard about how we’re going to prepare children for an uncertain future, we like to use fashionable phrases like ‘the future of skills’ and ‘21stcentury skills’ (now twenty years old). We like to codify and systemise the preparatory steps needed for a time when our students are forty and we are eighty. We need a road map so that we can create a future-proofed curriculum with schemes of work. But discerning which skills will be most in-demand and which will have become obsolete is almost impossible, such is the pace of change and technological advancement.

What matters more is the climate we create – the caring culture in our schools – in which joy abounds, curiosity is untrammelled, challenge is embraced and creativity is allowed to prosper through a playful approach to learning. For the sub-conscious teachings children pick up in school about themselves, about each other and about what learning actually means, are the real obsolescence-proof lessons and the determinants of future success and happiness, more influential than the discrete skills we teach or the knowledge we deliver.

The question for me, forty years on, is not so much what I would say to the eight-year-old Andrew, but what he would say to me, if I listened to him. It would be unfair of me to expect him to offer a full exposition of the optimum learning conditions for a child, not least because he is only eight, but also because the really significant lessons he is learning are sub-conscious and won’t have revealed their impact to him yet.

If I could get him to sit still for a moment, I think Andrew would say, with excited eyes, ‘We’re havin’ a fun time. Have you seen the robot I made? You can make one too. Gotta go… bye.’

And I’d be happy with that.